Editorial, Opinion

EDIT: Bet on Net Neutrality

Net neutrality has been in the news again lately thanks to a proposal by U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. Wheeler’s proposal would reclassify Internet as a telecommunications service under the Communications Act of 1934, therefore erasing legal uncertainty about regulation laws and allowing the government to centralize control over it.

The FCC will vote on the proposal on Feb. 26 and will likely approve it due to the fact that Democrats hold a majority standing in the FCC. This is a huge win for proponents of “net neutrality,” which is the idea that data should be able to move across networks without interference and would ensure that all Internet is the same speed, regardless of what one is doing or what service they are using.

Wheeler’s proposal to classify the Internet under the Communications Act of 1934 would leave it as fair game for the government to regulate in the same way they regulate phones and other public utilities.

Opponents such as libertarian think tank TechFreedom have come down against the proposal in a big way: the organization created Don’t Break the Net, a website that states that approval of the proposal will “saddle the internet with price controls and other heavy-handed rules from a thankfully long-gone era.” But Wheeler maintains that net neutrality, and this proposal in particular, is necessary to ensure that big companies do not buy Internet “fast lanes,” or create “slow lanes” for other users. He cited $300 billion in investment in the Internet industry in the past two decades, silencing those who said that net neutrality would slow investment.

Still, many are wary of allowing the government to oversee something that has never in the past been regulated. People are scared of censorship and the idea that the FCC could tell broadband providers how much to charge their customers.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called upon the FCC to regulate the Internet under the Communications Act before, and now that it’s being brought in front of the commission, its approval is likely. Once it gets passed, however, industry lobbyists say that it’s likely that major providers such as Verizon and AT&T will sue to counter the law’s fairness.

“It is counterproductive because heavy regulation of the Internet will create uncertainty and chill investment among the many players — not just Internet service providers — that now will need to consider FCC rules before launching new services,” Michael Glover, Verizon senior vice president and deputy general counsel, told Boston.com on Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, told Boston.com that Wheeler’s plan is “radical” and is an attempt by the FCC to gain power over an unregulated industry.

But others disagree with sentiments like Thune’s and Glover’s. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey told Boston.com, “These rules are a declaration of independence for the Internet.”

And indeed, net neutrality seems to promote democracy on the Internet. It’s time to ensure that no Internet user has an unfair advantage over another. The Internet is a free and open service, and companies provide free and open Internet. Turning it into a public utility and therefore eliminating the chance of any one company getting more powerful than any others is just making the Internet fairer for the billions of users that log on every day.

The notion that this proposal would “stifle innovation” is one of the biggest arguments against it, and against net neutrality in general. However, it’s strange to say that ensuring that all Internet is equal would stifle innovation. What would really stifle innovation is if one company got big enough to buy a fast lane and impeded others from offering the same service at competitive rates. It would be harder for Internet startups to get into the game if they couldn’t pay.

The nature of Internet startups, and the Internet in general, is that anyone can use it. Not making the Internet an equal playing field takes away a whole population of people with big ideas but little money. It shouldn’t become a question of, “who is affluent enough to use this part of the Internet?”

And as for those who believe that this would open the door to Internet censorship: the government owns phone services, and they can’t decide which phone calls go through. The privacy issue is a moot point in the issue of net neutrality. It’s about free, fair Internet for all.

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